Idle No More in Canada: Dissent, Resonance, and a Middle Ground
Idle No More (INM) is an indigenous-led multi-vocal movement that used social media to mobilize and engage Canadian and global audiences. Social media facilitated the emergence of a crowd sourced elite composed of a significant number of indigenous and alternative voices, and collective articulations and negotiations of the movement’s concerns.
INM emerged first as a reaction to two wide-ranging pieces of Canadian legislation that quietly and fundamentally transformed environmental protections and indigenous governance. Bill C-38 streamlined the environmental review process so projects would only go through a single review provincially or federally. Bill C-45 then made it easier for First Nations to approve resource projects, removed most lakes and rivers from protection, and reduced the number of projects requiring an environmental review. Despite best efforts by those concerned, there was little media or public attention. They were buried amongst other headline grabbing items also included in the Bills like the phasing out of the penny.
The seeds of the movement came from four women in late 2012. As teachers and lawyers in central Canada, Sheelah McLean, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon held a teach-in to “raise consciousness,” started a Facebook page and began using Twitter with the hashtag #idlenomore. Just over a month later, the first multi-city protest dubbed a “National Day of Action” occurred on December 10th.
"We're asserting our sovereignty against the colonial legislation being pushed through by the government," said Gordon in a media interview. Other indigenous voices argued that citizens can’t hope to “get their heads around” the volume of changes in these bills, and that it is the responsibility of indigenous people to defend the land. They challenged the general public to come alongside.
The day after the National Day, Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation, located in Northern Ontario, began a hunger strike in a lone tipi set up at an island across from Canada’s Parliament buildings. Spence’s strike was widely seen as an important act of solidarity, creating stark and iconic imagery as well as a pressing need to address concerns over the recent legislation.
Peaceful protests increased in volume and creativity across Canada as the movement grew beyond its indigenous roots. Round dances and stick games, traditional expressions of celebration and play in varied First Nations cultures, were held in shopping malls. Non-violent protest marches converged on city halls and provincial legislatures with indigenous people in full regalia, signing traditional songs with hand drums usually at the front. Canadian media coverage grew slowly at first during the early days of December then rose sharply. It reached a height during a tense meeting held between Prime Minister Harper and several elected First Nations leaders who agreed to meet with him on January 11. INM leaders were not part of this meeting, and many of those who emerged as spokespeople at the forefront of this multi-vocal, networked social movement actively resisted this meeting. The meeting marks a high point in terms of media coverage, Twitter activity, and events related to the movement.
Mainstream media struggled to accurately represent INM—both in terms of its momentum, allies and members, and aims.
Media coverage of indigenous issues in Canada has generally been poor, with communities underrepresented and coverage relying on negative stereotypes.
Twitter became an important space not only for collaboratively generated news streams that reported events and protests, but for a process we term resonance. Resonance describes the process where a crowdsourced elite articulates in open and evolving terms the meaning, history and substance of what it means to be a part of INM as ally and participant.
In our in-depth analysis of the Twitter stream during the height of the movement in December 2012 and January 2013, the INM crowdsourced elite evident was composed of a significant proportion of indigenous individuals who are usually absent from mainstream media representations. Their elite status grew not from the usual markers of “influence” such as institutional authority and power but rather by the degree to which they were retweeted. Multi-vocality through diverse spokespeople, is thus a substantive and defining quality. It allows for broad enrollment, consensus, alliance, as well as criticism and opposition. INM serves as an example of connective action where the lack of ideological coherence is no longer a barrier to collective action. At the same time, multi-vocality is the very element held up for harsh critique that, like Occupy and the Arab Spring before it, this movement doesn’t know what it wants or doesn’t have specific demands.
Resonance reflects the process of constructing an identity for the movement through its varied expressions on Twitter. It draws on observations from Alberto Melucci that social movements are “systems of action, complex networks among the different levels and meanings of social action” and collective identity is the result of “the outcome of exchanges, negotiations, decisions, and conflicts among actors.”
Through this lens, social media tools can be seen as a technology of and for collaboration, going beyond the verification and corroboration of news events, and facilitating a ‘middle ground.’ The middle ground in this sense is a proving ground for articulations both for and against the movement, and structured by the affordances and dynamics of Twitter as a platform. Definitions and meanings that are constantly in play facilitate accountability, resonance, and the emergence of a different set of influencers.
This has particular relevance for INM where Canada’s colonial past and a sense of shared history were debated, explained and fought for by leading bloggers and the crowdsourced elite on Twitter. They explicitly used terms like settler and colonialist as way to both explain and disrupt Canadian historical narratives. For the engaged individuals on #INM, meaningful discourse was constructed, contested, and always in-motion through personalized action frames that took on collective resonance through social media.
INM continues to simmer as a movement, and maintains an active presence online.
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